Jim Paxson on LeBron James

Sam Smith talks to Paxson about the player he drafted as GM of the Cavs

By Sam Smith

You’re not about to get Jim Paxson into that debate.

“Everyone will be compared to Michael because he transcended things when all this wasn’t possible,” the Bulls’ Director of Basketball Operations and older brother of John Paxson was saying this week. “But Lebron in his own way has taken it to another level for the way he’s grown into it as a person and as a man. He’s grown into not only one of best players who ever played the game, but you never hear anything off the court, married with a good family and kids. I have so much respect with the way he handles the day to day exposure and then impacting the game.

“He’s very particular in his business ventures and these guys who are around him, they aren’t just there because they are his friends; they all bring something to the table,” said Paxson. “LeBron’s loyal, but he’s a smart businessman. I think we did some things beneficial, but he had things in place.

“My boys are his age and you tell your kids it’s about choices in life, and for the most part LeBron has made a lot of really good choices. Did I have any part of that? I don’t know,” Paxson says, “but I respect the way he’s handled those choices and grown with so much media attention and the whole comparison with Michael and championships. Watching (these last two games), you see the way he after 14 years with probably two years of playoff games him still impacting the game like that on a nightly basis. It may not be enough to win in this series, but it’s still incredible. I always say you can put him on any team in the East and he would get that team to the Finals. You don’t have to say anything else.

“We should embrace that we’ve seen greatness over a period of time like with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods,” Jim adds. “We got to see Tiger Woods play unbelievable and we’ve gotten to see LeBron and whether he wins more than three (titles), five, four whatever, he’s made the impact on our game for the better and we’ve seen greatness.”

It sounds like a valedictory speech, though LeBron isn’t going anywhere.

But that he came to Cleveland in the first place and was in the Finals within four years was thanks, in large part, to the work of Jim Paxson. And you wonder why you don’t hear Paxson’s name mentioned more in all these personnel searches.

At least I do.

No, Paxson didn’t manipulate the ping pong balls that enabled the Cavaliers to get the No.1 draft pick in 2003 when Paxson was Cavs general manager. But Paxson cleverly and quietly without the overt failure route some teams have taken and eased the Cavs in place for what became the rebirth of the franchise.

Yes, LeBron left Cleveland to win titles. But he did return and Cleveland finally got that championship last season. That streak surely is over now with the Cavaliers trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-0 in this season’s Finals. But they can’t take that title away from Cleveland, and Jim Paxson was there to help start it all.

“When Cleveland won last year, (former owner) Gordon Gund, he still owns a percentage of the team,” noted Paxson. “He contacted me—I never said anything--and he said, ‘I hope you feel good because this whole foundation, even though it is to been so far removed, started with you.’

“I’m from Ohio and always wish Cleveland well,” Paxson noted. “I was asked back when they retired Zydrunas’ (Ilgauskas) number. I wish I would have had a chance to finish what I started, but at the same time I know the business side of this. Dan (Gilbert) and (new) ownership had every right to come in and say they wanted to put their stamp on it. And even though they lost LeBron, they got him back and got a championship. So I’m happy for the organization and the city of Cleveland.”

Even if he’s never much mentioned.

Paxson wasn’t looking for any credit or, really, missing it. He’s enjoyed his work with the Bulls and with his brother, often scouting out west where he lives now and consulting with the organization, a rare former all-NBA player who also was a leading executive.

Paxson was a two-time All-Star player with the Portland Trailblazers, one of the leading scorers in Portland history and probably one of the other reasons the Trailblazers didn’t draft Jordan. Paxson never saw it that way, though he did outscore Jordan the first time he faced him in Portland. Paxson said it was the last time he outscored Jordan. But with Paxson a 1983 and 1984 All-Star and coming off averaging more than 21 points in consecutive seasons and also with Clyde Drexler, the Trailblazers figured they were well set at shooting guard.

And then Paxson went on to be an executive with the Trailblazers and rebuild the Cavs.

Which is why I asked Jim why I never hear his name come up in all these executive situations. He isn’t the pushy type, and very much enjoys his work with the Bulls. Still, he said he would like another chance to help build a franchise as he did with the Cavs.

“I feel valued and the Reinsdorf family and Bulls organization has treated me great,” Jim says. “I really appreciate and respect the opportunity I’ve had with the Bulls for the last 10 years and the chance to work with my brother and what I do has been great. If I had the opportunity to be a strong second to a young GM getting in the league, I do feel I have a lot left to give and a lot of knowledge about the game and how things are done, and if I had that opportunity I’d embrace it.

“Personal things happened back then,” Paxson admitted alluding to his wife’s death from cancer in 2007. “I did a stretch consulting with Bulls, wasn’t out pushing myself. You know: Out of sight, out of mind.”

Paxson isn’t looking to leave the Bulls and hardly unhappy. I was the one who began asking him about it because he’s always impressed as an excellent executive. And that Cavs team that went to the Finals so quickly in 2007 effectively was the one he built even if he was fired after the 2004-05 season when the franchise was sold.

Would LeBron even have returned to Cleveland if he didn’t start there?

Who knows?

But it was Paxson’s manipulations without the taint of quitting that put the Cavs in the best position in what was shaping up as the draft of the decade. Plus, Paxson had already stolen a nice piece with Carlos Boozer a second round pick the year before. Paxson in 1999 took over a .500 Cavs team reviled for its boringly slow play, As general manager his first priority was getting rid of the ever expanding Shawn Kemp and his also bloated salary. Paxson quickly succeeded, picking up some spare parts, cash and draft picks to hit the restart. Cleveland was ready after all the years of Jordan heartbreak.

The Cavs were rolling along winning about 30 games each season, which wasn’t quite bad enough.

“That season before (in 2002) we traded Andre Miller to the Clippers because he was up for that rookie extension for Darius Miles and some parts,” Paxson recalled. “I told ownership even though there is no guarantee (for the top pick), we need to take one more step back because this (2003) draft is going to be special (Paxson said their draft order was LeBron, Carmelo and then Bosh). Andre was good enough to keep us in the 27 to 31-win range, which would take you out of that top three to four picks. We tied with Denver (for the most lottery balls) when we won the last game of the season. Then we got lucky to get the No. 1.”

The piece was in place.

Paxson had been watching James for a few years because James was from nearby Akron and he saw it, too.

“To me with great players, the thing that always jumps out is their vision and he had incredible vision, played the right way,” Paxson said. “Could have scored 60 to 70 points a game and didn’t. Other than one person on the board room asking, ‘Should we consider Carmelo Anthony over LeBron,’ and before I had the chance to answer the owner, Gordon Gund, said we never would consider anyone else.

“The biggest thing was you knew he had a chance to be a great player and special, but it was more what kind of environment were we going to put around him,” said Paxson. “I talked to Kevin McHale, who had Kevin Garnett as a young player; what did he do well? What did he wish he had not done? We tried to do things to keep things the same as much as we could. For example, everyone had four passes to the family lounge; LeBron didn’t get eight, he got four. We hired Paul Silas as coach, former player who could be a good mentor.”

Though much of that egalitarian theory evolved when ownership changed and Paxson and Silas were out.

“I said at the time I thought LeBron would be a combination of Magic and Michael,” said Paxson. “The size of Magic, the vision and passing ability of Magic and the athletic ability of Michael. I didn’t think he would come in and score at the clip right away he did; but I always felt as he emerged as a player he’d figure it out, what the team needed for it to win. If it needed him to get 40, he could get 40; if it needed a rebound, assist, defend, he would do what the team needed to do to win.”

Then the plan became salary cap room for 2005. Though Boozer pulled the alltime fast one.

He’d gotten close with owner Gund, who decided to trust Boozer when Boozer’s agent asked for a reprieve from the cap rules to become a free agent so Boozer could then resign with the Cavs for more. Gund agreed because he knew Boozer was worth more than his second round salary. But Boozer used the sleight of mouth to bolt for the Jazz as a free agent. So Paxson went out and got Drew Gooden, Anderson Verajao and Sasha Pavlovic and they were, essentially, the core of that 2007 Eastern Conference championship team with Larry Hughes coming with the salary cap space.

Paxson knows there were downs as well, draft picks like Dajuan Wagner and Luke Jackson that didn’t work out with injuries. He said right from the beginning they were thinking of getting shooters around LeBron, as the Cavs have today, because of the way James played. So later in that 2003 draft, the Cavs went for Jason Kapono.

“We were just trying to build early on to help maximize his gifts as player, thinking about shooters right away,” said Paxson. “I learned a lot through the process. I feel good about it knowing people still are there from when I was there and an owner I worked for still had a chance to be involved in that championship. Hey, and Quicken Loans treated me great on my mortgage after that. I have no regrets.”